Since I returned from three weeks in Nicaragua doing a family medicine elective, I feel obligated to write about what little I know about Nicaragua to you folks in the group. It’d be easy to write, and (hopefully) easy to understand. The little I know mostly comes from a book that I read called Blood of Brothers by the New York Times bureau chief in Nicaragua, Stephen Kinzer.
Shame of the hemisphere
Nicaragua is the 2nd poorest country the Western Hemisphere (funny, they said that in Bolivia too), and the poorest in Central America. Why is it so darn poor? Like in many countries, I think the difference between a competently and an incompetently governed country is what keeps some nations above the water and Nicaragua underwater.
For the which of you who think that everything was perfect and happy in American foreign policy before the big, bad George W. Bush took over, I think you need to re-examine your Latin American history books (oh wait, we don’t teach that in high school) about the USA and its relations with the other Americans.
In the 1850s, there was this sort of big deal called the California Gold Rush. All sorts of yahoos all over the world (see the book The Age of Gold, if you really want to know more) tried to pull this shiny, yellow metal out of the ground in Northern California because it makes you rich. To get to the West Coast, a lot of people would sail to Central America, cross to the Pacific side, and then take a boat to San Francisco. Through this method, a bajillion people went through Nicaragua to get to California. One of the yahoos decided to stay a bit longer.
William Walker was an American who thought up one day that white people had a divine right to rule all brown people and people who hadn’t learned the wisdom of American Protestantism. Funny idea that.
He figured he would start with Central America. Somehow he convinced some other Americans to come with him and help out Nicaragua in one of its civil wars between the Liberals and the Conservatives. Walker agreed to help the Liberals if they would agree to give him and his band of friends lots of land and privileges. Walker won the civil war for the Liberals, and then double-crossed the Liberals to make himself President of Nicaragua. He then tried to take over all of Central America and make it one big empire ruled by himself and his (inherently superior) American buddies. Other Central American countries didn’t take to that, so they sort of invaded to teach Emperor Walker a lesson. Surrounded by several armies and under siege in Granada, Walker knew he was done for. So instead of just giving up, he decided to do something that would cause America and Americans to be adored in the hearts of all Nicaraguans. He burnt the city down and left a sign that read, “Aqui fue Granada.” Here was Granada.
I don’t know what happened after that. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a Liberal president named José Santos Zelaya. He was a good guy apparently and did a lot to improve Nicaragua. He built streetlights and paved roads and built schools and universities. He generally wanted to improve Nicaragua. Zelaya also needed tax money to do these things, and it just so happened an American timber company was cutting down trees in the national forests without paying much in taxes or royalties. I know in Texas, if you log in state parks you need to make some desks and pencils out of it or pay royalties because it is public property, and the people of Texas need to be paid for using their land.
Zelaya wanted to revoke this timber concession that the Americans had. This made President Taft very mad because he thought American companies should do whatever they want in foreign countries and not pay silly things like taxes. In something that has never, ever happened again (I’m being sarcastic), the United States invaded another country on behalf of a corporation to depose the president. And that was just for lumber!!! Imagine if it were oil!!!
The Marines occupied Nicaragua for years and years working on behalf of American business. If you think this is abnormal, allow me to quote Marine Major General Smedley Butler on his work as a general in those days. This speech is from 1933:
War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses….
It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.
I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.
I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
I’ll be that quote never made your history textbooks.
Sandino, the Marine killer
When Zelaya died, one of the people who saw his funeral was a man named Agosto Sandino. Sandino was very upset that the United States was occupying his home country and that Nicaragua did not have true independence. He vowed that he would drive out the Marines from Nicaragua and make Nicaragua a truly independent country. After kicking it with some Mexican radicals during the Mexican Revolution, Sandino started his guerrilla war against the U.S. Marines in the 1920s.
Sandino was apparently kind of good at guerrilla warfare. He was so good, that he got the United States to drop bombs against towns under his control. That’s right, the United States bombed Nicaragua in the 1920s. The first time an airplane dropped bombs on a country in the Americas was the United States trying to kill Sandino and his rebels. And you wonder why they don’t like us.
Sandino ended up driving the Marines out by 1934. People in the United States got sick of this war they didn’t like what our military was doing. But before the United States withdrew, they trained a National Guard for Nicaragua. The National Guard was headed by a guy named Somoza.
Now Somoza felt that Nicaragua wasn’t big enough for him and Sandino, Mr. Big National Hero and Savior of Nicaragua. So after a dinner party celebrating the end of the war, Somoza had his National Guard stop Sandino’s car. They pulled Sandino out and murdered him. Somoza and his family began a terrible dictatorship that lasted until 1979. The dictatorship was fully supported and celebrated by the United States of America. FDR famously held a big reception for Somoza in Washington, D.C. and said, “He’s a son of a bitch, but at least he is our son of a bitch.”
Somoza and his kids run Nicaragua with an iron fist and an open wallet and lets American business do what it likes in Nicaragua. A new generation of radicals comes of age in Nicaragua inspired by anti-colonial struggles going on in 1960s where Africa and Asia are winning their independence from Europe. This generation wants independence for their country, but from the United States. One group they are inspired by is the National Liberation Front (FLN in French) that fought for Algerian independence in the 1950s. A man named Carlos Fonseca founds an FLN of his own in the 1960s, swearing to liberate Nicaragua from the horror of the Somoza clan. Fonseca then starts to read about Sandino and his struggle against the United States. In honor of Sandino, Fonseca adds another letter, ‘S’, to the group. FSLN, Sandinista National Liberation Front. Thus the Sandinistas were born.
The Sandinistas were young folks, many of them from educated families who studied abroad and came back to Nicaragua angry at how unjust their country was. A lot of them were encouraged to fight injustice by radical Catholic priests inspired by the Liberation theology popular in the Catholic Church at the time. Some Catholic priests were secretly Sandinistas themselves. Being young people and hating the authorities that ruled them, they wanted the opposite of what the Somozas wanted. Somoza loved America so the Sandinistas hated it. Somoza supported Israel, so the Sandinistas supported and trained with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Somoza, most of all, hated Marxists. So the Sandinistas were Marxists, enamored with Cuba and the Soviet Union. They also did badass things like take the National Congress hostage in exchange for money and the right to a 2 hour TV/radio broadcast to announce that it was time for revolution and the end to the Somoza dictatorship.
The Sandinistas were a secretive army hiding in the mountains and fighting skirmishes with the National Guard, training for the one day they could take down Somoza. They received training from Cuba and help trained in Syria with the PLO. In those days, you couldn’t join the Sandinistas. You had to be asked. And if you joined, you had a life expectancy of 3 months.
I met a doctor who told me she joined the Sandinistas at age 13. She did urban intelligence in Matagalpa for two years. Then police found out about her and she had to run away to the mountains. She learned how to march, fire a rifle, kill a man, and crawl through mud. In 1979, she was sent back to her hometown, now a warzone. What happened in between?
As the fourth Somoza got more and more oppressive and corrupt, people started rebelling. And when Somoza murdered the publisher of the biggest opposition newspaper, La Prensa, in 1977 the country caught fire. Students and working-class people started fighting the police and National Guard. One town kicked out the authorities and waited for the Sandinistas to swoop down from the mountains and protect them. But they didn’t, and the National Guard returned and bulldozed the town. Somoza ordered the Air Force to bomb rebellious neighborhoods (usually the slums) with huge bombs. When they ran out of bombs, he told them to drop barrels of gasoline. 50,000 people were killed in the uprising (remember, Nicaragua only had 3 million people at the time).
Somoza was run out of the country when the Sandinistas finally came down from the mountains and joined the mass rebellion. The general public served their country to the Sandinistas on a golden platter. The Sandinistas had won beyond their wildest dreams. Isn’t that a nice story?
And then the United States (basically) declares war on Nicaragua.
End of the Nice Story
Of course, things always get ugly. The Sandinistas set up a Cuba-style revolutionary government were all decisions are done secretly by a committee called the National Directorate. The press is censored, political opponents are tortured and jailed, and Sandinista goons break up opposition rallies. The window-dressing (like George W. Bush) was a 5 member junta, but none of the real decisions were made by them.
The Sandinistas inherited a very poor and mostly illiterate country (only 20% literate if I remember right). The first thing they did was a crash course in education and literacy across the whole country. They brought in hundreds of Cuban teachers and inspired thousands of young people to go to the countryside to teach people how to read. A lot of the city people had never seen the campo and were really shaken up by what they saw there and became more committed to the Sandinista project. Illiteracy fell from 82% to 12% in ten years.
A free primary health care system was set up so that people could access healthcare for the first time. Government health posts and hospitals were set up around the country and the health of the Nicaraguan people also improved (how much I can’t say, but a lot).
Land was also re-distributed for the poor in the countryside. However, the breakups were done by collectivizing land and making farms into cooperatives. Price controls were also set up; this particular act of genius made it uneconomical for people to move goods to the countryside because the prices were to be the same everywhere, so stores went empty. This made a lot of the campesinos got mad which became important.
So does the United States like it when a group of Marxists takes over a country in their backyard? Not if its president is named Ronald Reagan.
Reagan the anti-communist feels like emphasizing the war part of “Cold War” by funding a group of former National Guardsman to overthrow the Sandinistas. He also puts an embargo on Nicaragua (America being Nicaragua’s number 1 trading nation) which fucks things up. Factories built with American parts can’t get replaced, cars can’t get fixed, and nothing can be imported from their biggest trading partner. Which drives them to the Soviet Union for their equipment, guns, trucks, tanks and so on which makes Reagan even more mad.
This group of thugs trains with the Argentina dictatorship first and then gets a green-light from Reagan and Congress to train in Honduras. They call themselves contras which means “against” in Spanish because they were against the revolution. The contras, who aren’t that popular, then start to attack the countryside because they aren’t good enough to take on the cities. This means that the war goes on in places like where I was: Mulukuku.
Mulukuku is on a river. One side of the river had an army base while the other side was where the contras operated, supported by a lot of campesinos mad at land collectivization and price controls (I’m sure promised fabulous things that never came).
One of the guys named Eduardo at the clinic told me as a kid growing up during the 80s (he’s 24) he used to go see dead bodies laid out at the town plaza. All the kids used to get together and see all the beheaded bodies. His dad was the mayor at the time, and contras used to attack convoys of trucks. They would kill construction crews building the road and pull over buses and murder anyone without calluses on their hands ( i.e. non-farmworkers so teachers, doctors, politicians, student volunteers). Eduardo’s first grade teacher was killed and the first librarian for the town was murdered by contras too (they might be the same person). One of the worst things I read was that because contras attacked coffee pickers, coffee workers were too scared to work, so Nicaragua couldn’t export its #1 export. So students would be called in or would volunteer to pick in these dangerous coffee farms, and they too would be killed by contras. All with your tax dollars!
Oh yeah, and Eduardo and his mayor father were almost killed in a contra ambush, but they were saved when airplanes flew overhead and scared them off. Then they jumped face first into a ditch and pretended to be dead.
Contra funding was cut off for a few years in the 1980s, and and when it was funded, Congress conditioned contra money it would only be fighting narcotrafficking and stopping the spread of the revolution to El Salvador. Overthrowing the government of Nicaragua was not allowed. The money, of course, was used for that (see Nicaragua vs. the United States…. the USA was found guilty of aggression and ordered to pay $12 billion, which it didn’t pay).
During the few years funding was cut off under the Boland Amendment, the Reaganites decided to bypass, you know, American federal law by coming up with their own money. They illegally sold weapons to Iran (the national enemy then as now) via Israel (which should know better) and then laundered the money to the contras (also illegal). Breaking sanctions to launder money to an illegal war. So do two illegals make a right? If you are a Republican, you get away with it and don’t get impeached because you seem to forget everything at every meeting. Then you blame it on a fall guy (Oliver North, now Scooter Libby) and then when you lose an election (1992) you pardon everybody who was involved. Some things never change.
The Reagan Administration and the contras both knew that they could never defeat the Sandinistas, but they continued to cause hell to Nicaragua for years and years. All the other Central American countries except Costa Rica were in civil wars too, but between right-wing dictatorships and left-wing guerillas. So the president of Costa Rica made a Central American peace plan (and won a Nobel Peace Prize) where all the governments would talk to the dissidents and liberalize free speech and hold elections. The United States hated the plan and went crazy, yelling at the president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias. In the end though, the peace plan defeated the Sandinistas better than American plan.
The plan was for the whole region, but the intent was only for Nicaragua… and for the Sandinistas to lose control. The Sandinistas insisted they would not speak to the directly to the contras for years… they would only negotiate with the United States, who was the only reason they even existed for this long. Arias’s plan ends up making the Sandinistas concede all the points, legalize opposition, stop censoring the newspapers, allow for an election, talk to the contras, etc. while all the other countries around them (Guatemala, El Salvador) don’t fulfill their promises, or half-assed it and then stopped. Only Nicaragua followed through completely.
President Daniel Ortega was to face an election in 1990. The United States then helped all the bickering anti-Sandinista parties unite under one party called UNO (giving them millions of dollars might have helped) even though it included everything from communists to conservatives. They nominated the wife of the murdered publisher, Joaquin Chamorro, even though she wasn’t interested in politics. And she won the election in a huge upset in a year that Communists lost power across Eastern Europe.
I don’t know much about what happened in the 1990s till now, but basically neoliberal governments came to power that had to undergo structural adjustment by the International Monetary Fund (I’m writing a globalization issue on that one day) to repay their debts. Nicaragua is one of the most indebted countries in the world, and the IMF made them prioritize debt repayment over all other spending. So the education system was privatized and was no longer free, and the health care system was systematically dismantled and sold off piece by piece. 45% of the population is under 15, and illiteracy is now 33%. And the last president, Aleman, was a huge thief and probably the biggest crook in Nicaragua since the last Somoza.
But in case you haven’t heard, the Sandinistas are back in power after losing election after election. But how?
Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas struck a dirty deal with the Liberal Party, splitting them. Basically, Ortega said that he wouldn’t prosecute Aleman for stealing all that money if Aleman wouldn’t prosecute Ortega for sexually abusing his step-daughter for years. Aleman also gets to pick half of the Supreme Court, and Ortega was assured the presidency by Aleman lowering the percent needed to become president to 35%, which he could easily do. So Ortega was basically guaranteed the presidency with a divided Liberal Party in the 2006 presidential election, and now he is in charge.
Where does Nicaragua stand with a President Ortega? I don’t really know. He has now declared school and healthcare to be a human right and free to the public. Which I agree with, but people wonder where the money will come from. He also is passing laws through Congress with the part of the Liberal Party allied to him.
Ortega is trying to hitch his star to Venezuela and Hugo Chavez’s oil money. Maybe he can get his debts bought off by Venezuela like Argentina did. He has joined Chavez’s ALBA fair trade plan with other leftist governments (Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba). But I just don’t see much for Nicaragua happening without debt relief, and I don’t see Nicaragua making any great export that will help it pay that debt. I really don’t know, but I hope for the best for them. The politics are too dirty there, and even a young leftist Nicaraguan told me that the revolution won’t be coming from Nicaragua, but from Venezuela.
So what exactly is going on in Venezuela? That is something for another issue.